Cannabis reform advocates believe widespread legalization will create vital headway for social justice after “The War on Drugs” disproportionately incarcerated minority and poor communities for decades. These disparities continue today even in states like Colorado that have legalized recreational cannabis and experts suggest current states’ post-prohibition policies may be making the gap worse.
The issue of social equity has been a dealbreaker this year in New York and New Jersey. The debate on how to best erase marijuana convictions and make steps towards restitution for the losses inflicted by “The War on Drugs” prompted New York to abandon legalization efforts in March. New Jersey followed suit last week, announcing they would instead add a referendum on the upcoming 2020 state ballots.
The Cannabis Industry Is Dominated By White-owned Big Business
“Social justice is what’s going to propel us, not what’s going to hold us back,” said Kassandra Frederique, the New York director for the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, citing a lack of industry equality that has led to disappointing rollouts in states like Massachusetts and California.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker champions reform as a significant part of his bid for the 2020 presidential candidacy. In February he introduced a bill to Congress that would federally legalize marijuana.
Booker told Vice: “I want that bill to have some acknowledgment of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities. I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a War on Drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”
Senator Ronald Rice (D-NJ), a former police officer, argues, “The social justice issue is a big front for states and big business to make money off marijuana. I know what social justice looks like. I also know when people are being used.”
The inability of minorities to receive business licenses due to a criminal record for a marijuana conviction, and lack of big money to secure costly permits have been primary reasons keeping them out of the legal industry, including in states who have equity measures.
Minorities Are Still Being Targetted by Law Enforcement
Where recreational cannabis is legal, arrest rates remain higher among African Americans, though federal statistics show similar percentages of whites use marijuana. Some states, including California and Colorado, have started initiatives to amend their existing criminal policies. California passed a law last year to wipe the records of hundreds of thousands of pot convictions clean. Denver has a similar law, and just last week proposed an online process making it much easier to apply.
New York resident and African American entrepreneur Andrew Farrior would welcome incentives for people like himself to get into the industry but isn’t counting on them as he plans to launch Greenbox.NYC, a subscription and delivery business for hemp and other legal cannabis-related products. Farrior says, “We’re ready to take what the market gives us.”
Chappell, Carmin. “Cory Booker Introduces Bill to Legalize Marijuana Nationwide, with Support from Fellow 2020 Candidates.” CNBC. February 28, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/28/cory-booker-introduces-bill-to-legalize-marijuana-nationwide.html.
Demko, Paul, Sam Sutton, Andrew Desiderio, Maggie Severns, and Christopher Cadelago. “How Democrats Are failing on Legalized Marijuana.” POLITICO. May 19, 2019. https://www.politico.com/story/2019/05/19/democrats-marijuana-legalization-1331710.
Hutchins, Ryan, Katherine Landergan, and Sam Sutton. “Legal Pot Bill Dead: New Jersey Lawmakers to Move Ahead with 2020 Referendum.” Politico PRO. May 15, 2019. https://www.politico.com/states/new-jersey/story/2019/05/15/marijuana-bill-dead-new-jersey-lawmakers-to-move-forward-with-referendum-1017330.
Jaeger, Kyle. “Why Pro-Legalization Cory Booker Isn’t Cosponsoring The New Marijuana Bill.” Marijuana Moment. April 10, 2019. https://www.marijuanamoment.net/why-pro-legalization-cory-booker-isnt-cosponsoring-the-new-marijuana-bill/.
Press, The Associated. “As Marijuana Legalization Trend Continues, Social Equity Becomes A Key Question.” Colorado Public Radio. May 19, 2019. https://www.cpr.org/news/story/as-marijuana-legalization-trend-continues-social-equity-becomes-a-key-question.